April 5, 1814
London, Old Bailey Courthouse
Honorable Tobias Townsend, presiding
“They ain't whores!”
“What would you call seven women who live under your roof then, if not a brothel?” Prosecutor Abrams asked, stalking forward.
“Me lady friends, they are,” Slip Dawson explained.
“All seven of them?”
“Me mum always said I 'ad a way with the ladies,” Slip whined.
“Did your mother tell you to freely share your women with all the men of the City of London?” Abrams asked sharply, giving the accused a stony glare.
An imposing barrister at the defense table jumped up. “I object, my lord. The prosecution has not brought forth
man âfrom the City of London' to testify as to bedding any of Mr. Dawson's lady friends.”
The judge sighed and rested his chin in hand, a look of complete boredom on his face. Four of the twelve-member jury rolled their eyes; others snickered.
Evelyn Darlington sat perched on the edge of a wooden bench in the center of the spectators' gallery. Her eyes never wavered from the defense barristerâthe only man in the room she knewâJack Harding. He was the reason she was here, witnessing this spectacle, along with all the other observers in the packed courtroom.
The late-afternoon sun streamed in through the windows, raising the temperature in the crowded room by twenty degrees. Too many unwashed bodies in too small a space should have repulsed her.
Instead, she sat in her seat completely enthralled.
Jack Harding was precisely as she remembered him, as only a few lines near his eyes gave away the years that had passed since she had last seen him. He was tallâover six feet three inchesâwith chiseled features that gave him a sharp and confident profile. His eyes were a deep green that reminded her of the ferns that thrived during the summer months. His lips were curved in a smile, but she knew they could be either cunning or charming, or both.
Beneath his barrister's wig, she knew his thick brown hair had an unruly wave that he had often impatiently brushed aside when he was concentrating on a legal treatise. He was dressed in a black barrister's gown that would make the complexions of most men appear sallow, but the dark color only served to enhance his bronzed skin.
But perhaps his most fascinating appeal was his attitude of complete relaxation as if he were unperturbed by the judge, jury, prosecutor, and even the audience sitting in the courtroom staring at him. He was infused with a confidence that made one hang on every word that fell from his lips. Without a doubt, Jack Harding probably had women, from all stations in society, swarming around him.
A snort beside her drew her attention. “'E's got 'em by the throat, 'e does.”
Evelyn turned to look at the man seated to her left, a squat fellow with beady eyes and fleshy jowls. The overpowering stench of onions wafted from his skin. He smiled, revealing no teeth and swollen gums.
She shifted inches to the right only to brush up against a heavyset woman with a bloodstained apron, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and work-roughened hands. A butcher's wife, no doubt.
“'Tis a matter of time till old Abrams gives up.” The woman laughed and rubbed the calluses on her hands. “Ain't nobody can git past that Jack Harding.”
Just like old times,
Jack Harding could charm the habit off a nun and cunningly argue the most complicated legal points while doing so.
But that's why she was here, watching him . . . waiting for him. For the years, it seemed, had only polished his raw talent.
The rest of the trial went as expected. Prosecutor Abrams argued about Slip Dawson's entourage of female inhabitants. Jack countered each argument by pointing out the prosecution's distinct lack of evidence followed by a number of witnesses who testified as to Slip's “stellar” character and good standing in the community.
Exactly eleven and a half minutes after the start of the trial, the judge cleared his throat, cutting off Prosecutor Abrams in midsentence.
“As all of the relevant evidence has been presented,” Judge Tobias said, “I ask for the jury to deliberate on the charges and come to a verdict.”
The jury, not bothering to leave the courtroom, huddled in the corner.
In what must have been record speed, the foreman stoodâhis barrel-shaped chest puffed up with self-importance. “We the jury find Slip Dawson not guilty of keepin' a brothel.”
The spectators burst into cheers, turning the courtroom into a scene of chaos. Hands reached out to give Slip Dawson a hearty slap on the back as he proceeded out of the roomâa free man.
The pounding of Judge Tobias's gavel was a distant thumping, completely ignored by the people.
Evelyn stared as Slip passed, a cockeyed smile on his face, and she wondered how many of today's observers were patrons of his “lady friends.”
Her gaze returned to Jack Harding.
Jack extended his hand to Abrams. The prosecutor looked like he had sucked on a lemon, sulking in defeat, but he shook hands with Jack nonetheless. Jack then bent to gather his papers and litigation bag from the desk.
She waited until he turned to make his way out of the courtroom, then stepped into the aisle.
“Mr. Harding,” she called out.
He stopped abruptly, his gaze traveling over her face, then roaming over her figure before returning to her eyes. His lips curled into a smile.
“I believe you have the advantage of knowing my name. How can I be of assistance, Miss . . .”
“Lady Evelyn Darlington.”
His brow furrowed in confusion before his eyes widened in surprise.
“Why, Lady Evelyn! I don't believe it. You were a girl the last time I saw you. It's been a long, long time.”
“Ten years since you were a student studying under my father to become a barrister at the Inns of Court.”
“Ah, yes, my pupilage. From what I remember, you always had a voracious appetite for the law. You often visited your father's chambers, listening to his lectures. I have vivid memories of you following me around, taunting me with your extensive legal knowledge.”
Heat stole into her cheeks at his words. “From what
recall, you needed the additional tutelage.”
He laughed, a rich, pleasant sound. “TouchÃ©, Lady Evelyn. I probably did. Now please tell me, have you come today to watch the proceedings? Many do.”
She shook her head, then looked up at him. “I've come to seek your services.”
“My services? No one seeks out my âservices' unless they are in trouble. I cannot imagine you in trouble.” A sudden frown knit his brow. “Last I heard, your father, Emmanuel Darlington, inherited his brother's title and is now the Earl of Lyndale. I understand he is currently lecturing at Oxford. Is he well?”
“It's not about my father, but a close acquaintance.”
“Ah, I see. What crime has your friend committed?”
“None! He's been wrongfully accused.”
“Pardon, Lady Evelyn,” he said. “I meant no offense. What crime has he been accused of ?”
She looked to both sides, her eyes darting nervously back and forth, then whispered, “Murder.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “A serious offense, to be sure. Who is he?”
She took a deep breath and gathered her courage. “My soon-to-be betrothed.”
He stiffened visibly, and a shadow crossed his features. “I'm very sorry, Lady Evelyn, but my docket is completely full. Murder trials take a significant amount of time to properly investigate and prepare, and I would be remiss to even consider representing your acquaintance.”
A thread of panic ribboned through her. “But you must. If not as a service to an innocent man wrongfully accused, then as a favor to a girl you once knew.”
“I can refer you to a number of proficient criminal barristers. I am not the onlyâ”
“Then as a favor to my father, your former pupil-master.”
He hesitated, and she knew she had struck upon a nerve. Her father was a revered Master of the Benchâotherwise known as a Bencherâby many students, and she knew Jack was no exception. From what she recalled, Jack Harding owed Lord Lyndale even more than most.
He shifted the papers in his hands, then nodded. “I cannot promise anything, understand, but perhaps this conversation would be better suited elsewhere.”
Relief coursed through her that he was even willing to further discuss the matter. “Yes. Certainly.”
His hand cupped her elbow, and he led her out of the courtroom. As they weaved their way through the halls of the Old Bailey, she was conscious of his tall frame beside her, his firm fingers on her sleeve. She glanced up at the clear-cut lines of his profile and was once again struck by his air of authority. In this legal arena, he radiated a strength that drew her eye, impossible to look away.
He slowed his pace so that she could keep up, and a group of barristers waved as they passed. A voluptuous woman with a scandalously low bodice, a bright yellow flower tucked between her breasts, gave Jack a jaunty wave.
Evelyn couldn't help but ponder whether she was one of Slip Dawson's “lady friends.”
“You are quite popular, Mr. Harding,” Evelyn said.
“I am known as the people's lawyer.”
“At the expense of the Crown's prosecution?”
His humor apparently returned, his eyes lit with laughter as he looked down at her. “You must not judge me too harshly, Lady Evelyn. From what I gather, my reputation is the very reason you sought me out today.”
He was correct, of course. She had done her research. No other barrister, within the two jurisdictions covered by the Old Baileyâthe City of London or the County of Middlesexâwas a more successful criminal barrister than Jack Harding.
“You're right,” she said. “I would be nothing short of lying if I said I hadn't followed your accomplishments over the years. I just never anticipated that I would so urgently require your services.”
And she did
need his aidâa life depended upon it. For that reason alone, she refused to take no for an answer. She must convince Jack Harding to take the case, no matter the cost.